With one more week until nominations for this year’s Academy Awards, critics everywhere are speculating about which movies will be receiving nominations. One theme that seems to be emerging is that the movies most likely to receive recognition all have serious themes and strong moral messages; movies like Lincoln, Cloud Atlas, Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained are critical favorites that all depict dark subjects like slavery, poverty, torture, prostitution, and violence. Even this year’s most favorably reviewed romantic comedy, Silver Linings Playbook, has mental illness as a major plot point. Of course, this is not the first time that movies about serious, difficult themes have been made or have received critical attention. There just seems to be a rather high number of them concentrated at the end of 2012, particularly in contrast to last year’s big winners that were much more lighthearted movies about the movie industry itself.
As an active Mormon who has spent years listening to Church teachings about media, and as a person who loves film, I often find myself conflicted about what I should watch and why. My hunger to learn more about the world and the people in it is often tempered by the worry that I will do spiritual damage to my soul in my quest for knowledge and truth. I know many Mormons share my same concerns about media: does the fact that evil exists in the world mean that we need to see it? Can a work of fiction truly represent reality without depicting evil as well as good? If we do choose to include evil in our fiction, how much should we show? Where are the lines that, once crossed, turn a realistic depiction of sex into pornography or violence into depravity? I don’t know if I have yet answered these questions for myself and I’m not sure if I ever will. One source that I find particularly helpful, though I don’t agree with everything in it, is Orson Scott Card’s seminal lecture “The Problem of Evil in Fiction.”
Card describes a distinction between evil that is depicted by fiction, evil that is advocated by fiction, and evil that is enacted by fiction. For him, the third category is the most obvious to spot; he compares this to the classic example of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, as a type of speech that should be regulated because it actually harms others. Card sees pornography as the type of artistic creation that enacts evil because its sole intention is to titillate. I agree with him on this point, but I have often wondered about violence in film. What level of violence does it take for a film to move from advocacy to action? Most official Church discourse focuses more on the effects of sexual immorality in film and so the effects of violence on our souls are unclear. For me, personally, I tend to shy away from graphic depictions of violence on screen (interestingly, I’m not as bothered by violence in print, but that’s a discussion for another day). I’ve never seen a Tarantino film and I don’t plan to, although I have been a bit curious. Much of the discussion about Tarantino’s latest film centers on this question—do the graphic violence and repeated use of racial epithets speak more loudly than Tarantino’s intended critique of slavery? Can a film mean to question evil in the world actually bring about more evil by the way this critique is done?
Of the films I mentioned earlier, I have seen Cloud Atlas, Lincoln, and Les Miserables. Although differing widely in tone, style, and plot, these films all have the same basic theme: the greatest good a person can do in life is to protect and save those who are weaker or less fortunate. I have a feeling fewer Mormons will see Cloud Atlas than the other two movies simply based on the fact that it is rated R, but I find it interesting that the message it sends is the same one as the other two big ‘moral’ movies out there. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t totally recommend it, not just for the level of violence and sexuality it contains, but because it is an inferior film artistically. And yet, many Mormons will dismiss it as an immoral movie simply because it has a more swear words than Lincoln and because the prostitutes take their clothes off (unlike the prostitutes in Les Mis—although I’ve heard more than one person I know mention their reluctance to have their teenage children see the movie version of the musical based on Tom Hooper’s directorial choices during the scenes depicting Fantine’s fall from grace).
I have now come out against the bloodbath-style of Tarantino and for the heavy-handed moral messages of Spielberg, Hooper, and the Wachowskis. What about the movie that has given critics the most to wrestle with this Oscar season? No one seems to know what to do with Zero Dark Thirty; though they all agree that Kathryn Bigelow has created a masterpiece, the director has been tight-lipped about her intentions and message. Some say the movie has a pro-American slant, others that it is a scathing critique of the last eleven years of U.S. foreign policy. Some would argue that a movie doesn’t have to take a side and this work is just trying to objectively depict events from our recent past. Others, and I agree with them, argue that you cannot make a work of art without a moral point of view, even if that point of view is subtle. I’ve been intrigued by the movie and considering seeing it, but I’m not yet sure if sitting through 40 minutes of graphic depictions of torture will merely depict evil or whether those scenes are enacting it in my mind.
As you can tell, I’m still pretty conflicted about what my film viewing choices as a Mormon should be. I believe the counsel we’ve been given to be careful about avoiding immoral media, but am still not sure what makes a film more or less moral. I remember a number of years ago when the movie Crash beat Brokeback Mountain for the Best Picture Oscar and an editorial was published in the newspaper at BYU celebrating the fact that a movie that ‘glorifies homosexuality’ was not rewarded. I found that simplistic judgment to be, frankly, infuriating, especially since you could hardly call a film where the main characters suffer through a series of broken relationships before one of them is beaten to death by a mob a ‘glorification’ of any sort of lifestyle. For some, the presence or absence of particular content makes a movie more or less moral. For others, the ultimate message of a movie is more important than any particular content; and for me, I still haven’t decided. I’ve asked a lot of questions and I hope I’m not the only person mulling these things, so I’ll turn the discussion over to our readers and hopefully you have some great ideas for me to consider.